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Picture: 123RF/TRANIKOV STUDIO
Picture: 123RF/TRANIKOV STUDIO

Hong Kong suspended a system that banned airline routes that brought Covid-19-infected passengers to the city, the latest in a series of moves easing onerous travel curbs that damaged its reputation as a financial hub.

Starting on Thursday, the so-called circuit breaker mechanism will end until further notice, the government said in a statement. The city will pivot to a stronger testing regimen, which it says is more effective at catching imported cases than flight bans.

Cathay Pacific Airways surged as much as 6% on the news in Thursday afternoon trading before paring gains. Shares are up about 34% in 2022, the best performing major airline stock in the world.

The new measure is driven by the peak season for students studying overseas returning to Hong Kong, and will help reduce the effect on travel, the government said in a statement. It will stop transmission into the community in a more precise and effective manner to achieve “the most outbreak prevention goals with the least social cost”, it said.

The circuit break system suspended flights that had at least five passengers, or at least 5% of the total number of passengers on board, testing positive on arrival. The bans, which used to be two weeks long, and currently last for five days at a time, were one of the most criticised of Hong Kong’s curbs. 

The controversial policy saw about 100 flight routes banned in 2022, sparking chaos for travellers who also have to line up quarantine hotel rooms and preflight tests to get into the city. It’s the first substantial shift to Hong Kong’s policies since John Lee was sworn in as CEO on July 1 and comes as the system had been put under increasing strain as the peak summer travel season got under way.

Hong Kong will now require arrivals to take an additional PCR test on the third day, when they are quarantined in designated quarantine hotels. Including the pre-departure test, travellers will need to take six PCR tests across 14 days.

For now, the government is keeping the seven-day hotel quarantine requirement in place, though anticipation is growing that the length of confinement may also be trimmed. Bloomberg News reported that the government is considering cutting the time inbound travellers must stay isolated in hotel rooms to five days, followed by two days at home.

While the change is a step in the right direction, the next focus should be to shorten quarantine time or allow some period of home isolation, said Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. 

“Hong Kong can’t be like China because we are the gateway to the outside world. If we are closed, our economy and everything will be different,” he said.

Security-minded Lee has inherited the problem that plagued former CEO Carrie Lam’s final years in office: how to satisfy the city’s business community’s desire to open international borders with Beijing’s demand to limit virus cases in line with its strict Covid-zero policy — a key requirement to resume quarantine-free travel with the mainland.

Lee has said his administration is working with Chinese officials to introduce quarantine-free travel for people coming from Hong Kong to the mainland. Local media previously reported that Lee was considering proposing a closed-loop system to allow quarantine-free travel for business people.

“It is a very challenging and opposing position,” said Jin, referring to Lee’s goals of reopening to both mainland China and the rest of the world.

Bloomberg

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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